Snow traps Niagara University women’s hoops team on bus for 26 hours
When the bus doors slid open 20 hours in, Pittsburgh natives Val McQuade and Gabby Baldasare scooped snow into green water bottles and waited for it to melt. They were out of water. Help was not on its way.
“That’s when it hit us,” said Baldasare, 21, a senior forward. “This could last a whole lot longer.”
New York state troopers rescued the players and coaches of the Niagara University women’s basketball team early Wednesday as a mammoth snowstorm left the Purple Eagles stranded on Interstate 90 for 26 hours.
Snow enveloped the charter bus, obscuring all but the closest car or two. What little they could see, the snow buried. They wondered about the other drivers. For hours, the snow pounded on.
“This is an historic event. When all is said and done, this snowstorm will break all sorts of records, and that’s saying something in Buffalo,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said during a visit to the city.
As much as 5½ feet of snow had fallen by Wednesday, trapping more than 100 vehicles along the 132-mile stretch of the New York State Thruway. People were marooned in homes, on highways and at work, with another lake-effect storm expected to bring 2 to 3 more feet by late Thursday.
Bundled in black warmups and sweats, Niagara’s girls took to social media out of boredom, they said, tweeting photos of empty pizza boxes covered in lighthearted cries for help.
Fresh from the Monday night 70-54 loss to the University of Pittsburgh at the Petersen Events Center in Oakland, the team had grabbed two pies from Pizza Milano on the way out of town, but they didn’t last long, said McQuade, 21, a senior forward.
They rationed what few snacks remained.
“You’d look out the window and see people trying to walk by,” said sophomore guard Tiffany Corselli, 19, of Yonkers, N.Y. “A few rescue workers, you know? We started getting attention for the tweets, so we used it to ask for help for other people who needed it more.”
The team played charades and cellphone games, acted out scenes from “The Hunger Games” films and recorded corny videos of them singing and acting out.
Head coach Kendra Faustin’s kids were their chief concern, Corselli said. Faustin’s sons — one infant, one toddler — were among those trapped on board, and no one had prepared for a 33-hour return.
“We mostly had it pretty easy,” said McQuade, 21. “It was warm inside. Plenty of gas. We didn’t have much food, but we could see people walking on the road outside with snow past their waists.”
National news outlets responded, Skyping interviews with the team and sharing their posts from the storm. A Florida man traveling behind them saw the story online and tied plastic bags around his feet to hike quickly to their door.
“His name was Tom, I think. He said he saw the bus and hoped it was us,” McQuade said. “All he had was a hoodie and shorts.”
Late Tuesday, the women crowded the windows as six snowmobiles bounded up the opposite side of the road. They expected the National Guard, Baldasare said, but met Niagara Falls citizens instead.
“It took them a long time to walk through the snow and across the median,” she said. “They had snacks and other stuff we didn’t need to cook. It gave us that little bit of hope we needed to keep going.”
Rescuers in heavy gear arrived well into the wee hours Wednesday. They took Faustin and her family first. About 4:30 a.m., a second group came back for the team — some in a Humvee, the rest in snowcats. The team got back to campus shortly after 7 a.m.
“Not to say we take games for granted — we don’t — but it’s crazy to know that one day we’re safe and playing, and the next we can be out of water and stranded on a bus,” Corselli said. “This will be one to tell our grandkids.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story. Megan Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at 412-388-5815 or [email protected].